Putin already knew that, otherwise he wouldn't have followed through with his annexation of the Crimea through a military seizure and faux plebiscite. And it wasn't a decision that he made off the cuff. Sources close to Putin claim that he was outraged about American tacit support of the 2004 Ukrainian Orange Revolution that ousted pro-Russian Viktor Yanukovych the first time, declaring that he would never trust the Americans again. This is on top of the Russian outrage at the seizure of Kosovo from Serbia by NATO in 1999, with Kosovo formally declaring independence in 2008 just months before Russia threw its troops into Georgia to break off the regions of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. With the advent of the Obama administration, he had every reason to believe that the bumbled American "reset" policy would allow him free rein within the traditional Russian sphere of influence.
Putin has set out to exploit every opportunity that we present him, and why do we now have to be so accommodating? Bill Kristol explains it in The Weekly Standard:
He thinks he will [win in Ukraine]. He’s dealing with the Obama administration, after all. He looks at the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan, he witnesses the failure to enforce the red line in Syria and the subsequent successes of his friend Assad, he chortles at the relaxation of the sanctions on Iran and the desperate desire to cut a nuclear deal, and he sees Obama’s defense cuts. And he reads the New York Times, where David Sanger reports, “Mr. Obama acknowledges, at least in private, that he is managing an era of American retrenchment.”It is a retrenchment not of our own making entirely, no matter how much Obama works toward that end. Our allies enjoyed the American military umbrella for decades, which allowed them to shrift their security in exchange for spending themselves into the hole to finance nanny-state economies, feeding their voters on the seed corn of their culture. Reagan led the development of the finest military in the world, supported by a strong and unified diplomacy and economic power in order to beat the Soviets at their own game, demonstrating once and for all the internal contradictions of Communism. But Putin, who stated that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the twentieth century, plays the long game. He has seen us scramble for "peace dividends" that are ephemeral in their advantage but all too real for their weakening of America's power, and as goes America, so goes the rest of the Free World which simply cannot respond in any meaningful way, distracted as they are with their own socialist, slow, downward spirals.
The sclerotic Soviet system could not respond to the dynamic American challenge, but over a longer period of time, Putin knows that he can reverse the trend by using the same rules. He doesn't have to beat the Americans outright so much as he has to outmaneuver them; demonstrate the will to go where the Americans no longer have the ability or will to respond. And Obama, after more than three weeks of pulpit-wringing bloviating when pressed on the issue, finally came out with his version of a response, and it started with "We are not going to be getting into a military excursion in Ukraine."
Of course not. We may still have the most capable military in the world – comparatively – but we simply don't have the capability for an overt military response in support of the Ukrainians, even if the geography weren't so formidable, or if the new regime in Kiev didn't still carry the whiff of corruption so endemic to that region, or if we weren't so weary from fighting Islamic Supremacists since 2001, or if the stakes actually added up to the risk. I fully agree – a repeat of the Crimean War would be mad.
The response from the West is being ratcheted up through economic reprisals, as demonstrated by the backbone shown at a joint news conference of Germany's Angela Merkel and Canada's Stephen Harper. Prime Minister Harper allowed that we should proceed "cautiously", but we should move at a pace that shows that we have learned the lessons from our indulgent escalations in the Viet Nam War which allowed Hanoi and its mentors to adjust, nor should we telegraph our next moves so openly as we did in that war as well.
Putin still has responses as I'm sure he has already carefully calculated, and trade sanctions can hurt the EU just as they hurt Russia. Europe, after all, is still dependent on some 40 percent of its natural gas from Russian pipelines, to use just one example.
Obama can declare in a press conference yesterday, which concluded with an echoing silence from the audience, that the US can conclude new and far-reaching agreements with Europe in the area of energy – real energy, not the alternative "maybe someday" sources that the Europeans are rapidly abandoning. Poland, with far more direct experience of living with the Russians, has been building a liquefied natural gas (LNG) terminal on the Baltic in order to diversify its sources, but it won't be in operation until the end of the year at the earliest. But on our side, it is doubtful to say the least that Obama will have the political courage to buck his environmentalists in order to open up the federal lands and offshore to augment the recent American energy surge (done on state and private land in spite of – not because of – the administration energy 'policy') in order to properly supply Europe, or to finally stop the obvious stalling and build the XL Keystone pipeline.
And even if he did completely reverse himself and start a Manhattan Project of self-sufficient energy, with known reserves far outstripping Russia and Saudi Arabia, how long would it take to bring that fully on line? Five years? Ten years? What mischief and compromises could Putin impose in the time being? Just one possibility to ponder: a recent political maxim is that "only Nixon could go to China", but the Russians can play that card too.
As to military maneuvers still ongoing on the Russian/Ukrainian border – while we are fixated on that area, with pundits worried about Russian troops dashing across southern Ukraine to build a land bridge to connect the pro-Russian sliver of Transnistria (or Pridnestrovie in some Russian accounts), consider another scenario. While the Russians are playing three card monte with its troops coming and going off of ships in the Crimean naval bases, what is to stop them from dashing a landing force less than 200 miles to seize the small Southern Bessarabia (or Budjak) or even the major port of Odessa close by, and then link up with the ex-Moldovan enclave? (The Russians captured these areas from the Turks at about the same time that Crimea was wrestled from the Ottomans and Tatars by Catherine the Great, folding into one of Putin's reasons for "restoring" Crimea to Russia.) The area of operations would include a population that is some 20 to 30 percent ethnic Russian, but that belies the fact that more than 70 percent speak Russian fluently. There must be a significant amount of that population that would opt for a future with a Russia that is resurgent, instead of holding with Moldova – the poorest country in Europe – or sticking with a Ukraine already humbled. There would be enough for Putin to declare justification, however contrived, for the action.
Is the US military entirely unable to help the remaining areas of an increasingly distilled Ukraine, with Russian enclaves being steadily broken off in a form of reverse ethnic cleansing? In the realm of covert support, or even hinted at to provide some 'plausible deniability' to take a page from Putin, consider sending in some Operational Detachments of the 10th Special Forces Group. The Ukrainian military has for all intents and purposes collapsed through years of inattention and draconian budgets (some have claimed that the former President Yanukovych and his cronies did so deliberately in an effort to sabotage a Ukrainian response), and the government is throwing together the beginnings of a peoples' militia to start anew and try to purge Russian fifth column elements. Special Forces were begun in Europe after the dust settled from World War II and we focused on the Soviet threat of the Cold War. SF was to be the stay-behind force that would train partisans and guerillas to fight a rear-guard action against the Red Army in case the Soviets came roaring through the Fulda Gap. Slipping into western Ukraine to train up a new army is the exact mission for which Special Forces was created, and they would be amply supported by the very capable Polish special units just across the border.